Decoding smoke signals on eve of NFL Draft

Apr. 24—INDIANAPOLIS — The last few weeks have been filled with smoke signals suggesting the Indianapolis Colts could be on the move up in the NFL Draft.

Speculative targets include LSU wide receiver Malik Nabers, Georgia tight end Brock Bowers, Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell and Alabama edge rusher Dallas Turner.

Is this evidence of an actual fire burning inside the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center or a mere smokescreen from teams in the bottom half of the top 10 looking to drum up a market for their picks?

The answer will finally become clear Thursday when the draft goes on the clock in Detroit, and the countdown officially begins to Indianapolis' 15th overall pick.

But Colts general manager Chris Ballard has offered a few hints.

He all but ruled out the biggest name dreamed up by the fan base — Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. — calling a trade for the top-five prospect "fantasyland" during an appearance on Rich Eisen's national talk show.

But he has not shot down the idea of trading up all together — in specific circumstances.

"I just go off history," Ballard said. "The more picks you have, the better chance you have to hit. Now of course you're not going to hit on all of them, but it gives you more of a chance to hit,

"Look, we've moved up. We moved up for Jonathan Taylor (in 2020). When we see one that's in striking distance that we think we can go get, we'll do it. But it's got to work out, and then you've got to have somebody that wants to make the trade."

One consistent element of Ballard's previous seven drafts with Indianapolis has been a tendency toward need in the early rounds.

Cornerback, free safety, wide receiver and tight end are the positions that could be most immediately impacted by a high-round rookie this year. And Ballard might look to add an edge rusher with a decision looming on Kwity Paye's fifth-year option and Dayo Odeyingbo entering the final year of his rookie contract.

The balance between selecting a player who can be a difference maker quickly and looking further into the roster's future is one every draft war room deals with.

"I think that's the general coaching-scouting tug and pull that you get where we're looking at, 'Two years from now this guy is up. We'll draft this guy to replace him,'" Ballard said. "In coaching, you're like, 'Screw that. I need (help) today.' It's definitely a balance."

The coaching-scouting balance could be a benefit in this year's draft.

A year ago, Colts head coach Shane Steichen was still learning the active roster, hiring his staff and settling into a top job for the first time throughout the draft process.

This year, he's been able to work more closely with the personnel department and have a greater voice in the process.

There's a school of thought that could lead to an offensive player being selected in Round 1 — particularly a pass catcher.

But Steichen said he doesn't view the draft in terms of offense vs. defense.

"I think honestly (I prefer) whatever gives us the best chance to win," he said. "I really do believe that. Even though I'm an offensive backgrounded guy, I do believe you take a really good player. It doesn't matter offense or defense — a player that's going to help you get better."

Ballard confirmed Steichen's been a bigger part of the process this year.

And he said that's been a positive development all around.

Steichen and his staff have a better understanding of how the scouts go about their duties, and the scouts in turn have a better understanding of what traits the coaches are looking for at each position.

The result should be a more collaborative process in Year 2.

"It's really good because it makes it — when you go in there and you start looking at players together and then when (Steichen) starts looking at the board and can tell, 'This is how we'll use this guy. This is how he fits,'" Ballard said. "From a GM perspective, that's a beautiful thing now — knowing that he's got a vision quickly for the player, and it's not a vision of negativity with many guys, where he sees the strengths really quickly and will figure out a role for how this guy can play for you. That's fun. That makes it fun."

Ballard stated in January the goal of this offseason would be to add more explosion on both sides of the ball.

So far, the only outside additions through free agency have been backup defensive tackle Raekwon Davis and backup quarterback Joe Flacco. So any new explosive pieces will have to come through the draft.

One hint Ballard revealed as to how those players might be selected came through the context of second-year quarterback Anthony Richardson.

"We like what we saw, where we're going with him," Ballard said. "... Block and protect. That's one of the most — you just look through the league and you just look through the playoff teams, they all can block and protect. I think that's critical. I think that's (priority) one.

"I remember Andrew (Luck) used to tell me all the time, 'Chris, get me protected. I will get the ball to them. Give me guys that will catch it and get to the right spot, and I will make the rest work.' Most of the really good ones, that's how they kind of roll. Do they want the superstar (receiver) out there? Absolutely, but protection to me is always first and foremost."